FRONT FOOT: Peter Rafter (right) and his QRL caravan of courage are spearheading the game's outback evolution.
FRONT FOOT: Peter Rafter (right) and his QRL caravan of courage are spearheading the game's outback evolution. Allan Reinikka ROK081015acaravan

NSW secret evolution behind outback rugby league revival

RUGBY LEAGUE: Rugby league might be struggling in country Queensland but our one-headed friends below the border are light-years ahead when it comes growing the game.

As the old adage goes, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

New South Wales' innovative approach to bush footy has turned the sport's fortunes around.

If we're not careful they could win another Origin series.

THE PROBLEM: State of the League

INTRODUCTION: The Decline

PART ONE: Mal Meninga Weighs In

PART TWO: Gavin Ford's Sacrifice

PART THREE: Richard Dugdale's Herculean Task

PART FOUR: Captain's Call

PART FIVE: End Of The Line?

QRL's outback operations manager Peter Rafter is well-versed on the uphill battle the game is facing and spends much of his time in a motorhome, travelling rural Queensland on a rugby league crusade.

Rafter understands the sport is in danger of fading into obscurity in the country and has called for an overhaul to the way it's structured in rural areas.

For too long, he says, we've been set in our ways and reluctant to change.

Rafter is urging the naysayers to rethink the tried and true approach and inject a much-need shot of enthusiasm back into country leagues.

"Money is not the problem,” he said.

"People often turn around and say, 'What's the NRL doing for grassroots footy?'.

"They will supply as much help as you want but the communities have to get it started.

"We've got to come up with ideas so that the leagues can go ahead.

"If people want footy to survive in these areas they have got to bend a little bit.”

The Central Burnett Rugby League is in trouble but we have plenty of company.

This year the Western Rugby League - Charleville, Quilpie, Cunnamulla and Augathella - managed only one game.

Danny Moore, Peter Rafter and Owen Lingard.
Danny Moore, Peter Rafter and Owen Lingard. Derek Barry

In the famous words of former Manly coach Geoff Toovey: "There needs to be an investigation into this. Someone has to be held accountable for this.”

That's exactly what the NSW Country Rugby League have done.

NSW had the brains to act. They weren't afraid to innovate and are leaving us in the dust.

Peter Clarke, regional area manager for the CRL's western division said increased flexibility has sparked a dramatic revival in the game in outback New South Wales.

League tag, the merging of rural leagues, eight-week competitions and the implementation of 'Safe Play' rules have been rolled out with great success.

Community involvement is up, and struggling regions across central New South Wales have reclaimed a solid foothold in junior participation.

Clarke pointed to a remarkable case in which a competition in the Western Riverina was reborn after a 15-year layoff.

"That shows you there's still a fair bit of hope,” Clarke said.

"No area is without its challenges but you need to be realistic and willing to do things differently.

"It takes hard work but passionate people in the bush can turn it around.”

Rugby league needs to focus on working smarter, not harder.

The challenge the sport faces is unique.

Rugby league is experiencing different problems in different areas and there is no one size fits all solution.

Rafter agrees Queensland administrators must get creative.

He believes the antidote to rugby league's predicament is to rethink the way competitions are run in the bush.

"Everyone seems to think that because the NRL starts in March and finishes in October, that's what every competition should do,” Rafter said.

"The season goes on for so long and there's breaks here there and everywhere - there's no need to do that.

"A lot of volunteers are gun-shy because they get overloaded with responsibility.

"Guys up in the Central West (Barcaldine, Blackall, Ilfracombe and Longreach) trialled a 12-week season which was short and sharp, and finished in June.

"They loved it and their numbers increased.

"I don't know if that's the solution for everyone but that idea certainly works.”

Rafter has called a meeting of the minds.
Rafter has called a meeting of the minds. John McCutcheon

A number of compelling suggestions to help drive the bush football revolution have been raised.

Chief among them are new formats and reducing competition duration to limit travel demands.

Rafter and the QRL hope to put and end to rugby league's misfortune with an outback forum this November in Charleville.

It's an opportunity for representatives from the NRL, QRL, clubs and communities to discuss the problem and come to a unified solution.

Anyone who wants a say in the sport's future is encouraged to attend.

Regardless of the outcome, the meeting is a major step in the right direction.

"No one person has the answers to all of this,” Rafter said.

"Different areas have different problems but if we all get together and come up with ideas the solution might be found quite easily.

"Hopefully we're going to get clubs up and running, and get some enthusiasm back again.

"Support the people that are trying - the more volunteers there are the less work it is.

"If you're a strong club you need to help the other teams and other towns or else you'll end up the last one standing.”

The outback forum will be held at Charleville RSL on Saturday, November 10. In attendance will be Peter Rafter, QRL Central chairman Danny McGuire and regional manager Glen Ottoway, and the NRL's Richard Dugdale. Contact Peter Rafter on p.rafter@qrl.com.au or 0430 303 643.


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